country music umbrella now encompasses a wide spectrum of musical styles.
From an urban pre-teen to a rural senior, the country music fan is more
diverse than ever. And while there may be no specific definition for each
of those styles of music, we will define "Country Music," for the purposes
of this discussion, as that music which falls under the jurisdiction of
1999 Mainstream Country Radio.
Now that leaves
a lot of related musical formats out in the cold. Used to be that the
medium was referred to as "Country & Western". But you rarely hear any
western music on mainstream country radio anymore, so it's now in a category
of its own. If you want to hear Michael Martin Murphey sing a cowboy song,
you probably shouldn't tune in Mainstream Country Radio.
There are three
basic styles of current country music: Traditional, Mainstream and Contemporary
(pop-country). Try looking at it like the American Political Systemon
the right are the Conservative Republicans (Traditional) , on the left
are the Liberal Democrats (Contemporary/Pop-Country), and in the middle
are the Moderates (Mainstream). Think of Alan Jackson as the George Bush
of country music. Get the idea?
If you take that
visual approach to the industry, you will realize that there are basically
three idealized types of music within the format. But in the same way
that three Primary colors make up all the other colors by mixing, so too
are musical styles mixed to create more categories. These categories don't
all have names or definitions, but I can give you examples...
by 1999 standards would include George Jones, Alan Jackson, Randy Travis,
Lee Ann Womack, and others. However, what makes them Traditional may be
a combination of things: vocal stylings, musical tracks, subject matter,
instrumentation, etc. You may have Randy Travis who has been labeled "The
First of the New Traditionalists" (and who undoubtedly has a traditional
country voice) recording a song that is more mainstreamas he did recently
with "Spirit of a Boy, Wisdom of A Man," (written by TAXI member Glen
Burtnik,) and that will affect the feel of the song. Is that Traditional
Country Music? I think so. You can't hide Randy's traditional vocals.
And what about
when LeAnn Rimes, who has been recording more and more contemporary songs,
decides to record an album of Traditional Country standards? Will they
still be contemporary? Probably not as contemporary as they would be had
they been more pop oriented songs. But not as traditional as they would
be if it were Lee Ann Womack singing them. It's a mixture. Let's go back
to our color analogy. Once you add the tiniest drop of yellow to pure
blue, it will never be pure blue again. And, no matter how much yellow
you add to pure blue, it will never be pure yellow. In addition to LeAnn
Rimes, other contemporary country artists of today include Shania Twain,
Mindy McCready, Collin Raye and John Berry.
That leaves the
most compelling category: Mainstream Country. This includes the widest
spectrum of artists. Take for example, Vince Gill, Patty Loveless, George
Strait, Pam Tillis and Joe Diffie. Each of these artists may cross over
the lines between mainstream and traditional or between mainstream and
contemporary. Some, like Patty & Pam, may cross both ways. The truth is,
it's not the artists that put these labels on the musicit's usually
radio or other peripheral folks doing it. To the artists, it's just music.
term in country music is "Crossover." And one of the things that country
music has lost is the true crossover artist. We don't have a 1980s version
of Kenny Rogers anymore, where he could release one song to pop-A/C radio
and another, from the same album, to country radio. Due to the tremendous
rigors of promoting a song to just one musical format (with a promotional
blitz, marketing and interviews), crossing over an artist has become quite
rare. Additionally, country radio is incestuous. As an artist, you're
either "one of us," or "you're not"! They like to keep it in the family.
As for describing
the term "edgy," let's just say that it's what you hear in Tim McGraw's
voice, it's what you get in Hal Ketchum's tracks and in Diamond Rio's
harmonies. It's the feeling you get from a Walt Aldridge production.
So just what
is the definition of country? You tell me!
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